Red cups and blue cups

By Grazia Pecoraro, Principal Consultant & Founder – Perspective Hive Diversity Consulting

I hated nursery school. It was called Kiddies Kingdom and it felt less palace, more prison to me. It was also my first (but by no means my last) life experience at feeling like I didn’t fit in.

One particular memory has stuck in my mind. It involved teatime in the morning. While we had were playing, juice and food was set up on a table outside one of the rooms. This was a sunny morning, I remember the brightness of the light as I moved towards the table, the sun warming my arms. I was looking forward to a biscuit and some apple juice.

A few of the other children ran past me, getting to the table and grabbing their snacks. I walked over, picked up a cup and a cookie and went and sat down on the step between the verandah and the playground. I closed my eyes and sipped my juice slowly. I can still now feel the warm sunlight tingling on my arms.

A boy came and sat down heavily to me, blocking out the sun and shaking me from my reverie. He was older, bigger. He squinted at me, turned down his mouth and declared confidently: “you’re a boy, you’re a boy”. I was astounded at this and retorted “absolutely not”.

“You have a blue cup, you’re a boy,” he said disdainfully, pointing a finger at me. “Boy. Boy. Boy. Only boys take the blue cups. Girls take the red cups.” Quickly others picked up the scent of fear in the herd, and a singsong chant started up around: “You’re a boy-hoy, you’re a boy-hoy”, accompanied by mocking laughter.

My first taste of shame was confusing. There was a set of rules in life that until the age of five I had been blissfully unaware of.

I thought a cup was a vessel from which to drink liquid, but apparently there was far more to this practice than I had been taught. And if you got it wrong, you would be shamed, mocked and humiliated.

From that day on, morning tea, which had been my time for a bit of peace and quiet, became another episode of endurance at nursery school. I no longer walked, but ran to the morning tea table to make sure I grabbed a red cup. There weren’t enough red cups for all the girls and I only wanted to taste the juice, not the shame again.

I tell this story because I use it to reflect on how gender stereotypes are built from a very young age. Who had taught that little boy about red cups and blue cups and why? Both my parents worked and shared care responsibilities equally, while I loved helping my dad around the garden and had never been told that this was only for boys.

It matters. It matters because it impacts the self-worth of young girls. It impacts how they define themselves and then later the career choices they make. Even when they make a choice, high numbers opt out due to bias in the selection process. STEM and the myriad of programs now underway to tip the balance being a good example here.

It starts early and us adults are responsible. As Clementine Ford wrote in her article The small way I’m flipping gender stereotyping in the baby clothes aisle in the SMH on 3 April 2017: “I have a seven-month-old, and wandering the clothing aisles in high street shops or department stores is an exercise in anger management. The most noticeable thing is the distinction of gender according to colour. The girls’ section bursts with pinks, yellows, purples and glitter while the boys’ section wades through a more muted palette of dark blues, black, red, khaki and beige, beige, beige. But what the boys’ section lacks in vibrancy it more than makes up for in affirmations and positive reinforcement. T-shirts and jumpers scream words like “awesome”, “cool”, “future superhero” and “little but loud”. Conversely, girls’ clothes are emblazoned with things like “princess”, “cute”, “stay happy” and “gorgeous”. Because never forget that boys are defined by how impressive they are, while girls are defined by how impressive they look.”

If we want girls who are confident and don’t feel shame at their gender, and boys who are confident and don’t shame any other gender type (or feel they have the right to commit acts of violence on the extreme end) then we need to address this. Us, the adults in charge, right here right now.

If you see it, call it out. Watch for the blue cups and red cups. It matters.

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